Monday, 16 July 2018

The Guardians (1971)

The Guardians is a dystopian political thriller series made by London Weekend Television which went to air in Britain in 1971. It has never been screened since. It was also screened in Australia but as far as I know has never been seen in the U.S.

Back in the 60s neo-nazis and fascists were immensely popular as villains in action adventure television series in both Britain and the U.S.  - television writers seemed to be convinced that there was a neo-nazi under every bed. They were usually presented as ridiculous cartoonish villains and the subject was mostly treated in a mocking way.

The Guardians was quite different. This series took itself very seriously indeed. It also refused to trivialise the subject by creating cartoonish villains. It dealt with the subject in a relatively subtle and even nuanced way. This is rather sophisticated political television.

The first episode, The State of England, raises more questions than it answers. That’s not a criticism. The intention (I assume) is to show us firstly the surface appearances of Britain as it is being transformed into a police state. We see the Guardians in action. They are obviously some kind of paramilitary political police, although whether they are actually under the effective control of the government remains doubtful. We are introduced to the Prime Minister Sir Timothy Hobson (Cyril Luckham). He seems to be well-meaning but ineffectual. He’s the sort of man who likes to think he is willing to stand up for principles, as long as he doesn’t actually have to do so. We discover that real power is in the hands of a shadowy figure known as The General. We have no idea as to his identity or the means by which he has come to wield power over the government. Norman (Derek Smith) appears to be the man who transmits The General’s orders to the Cabinet. We see news broadcasts running in the background and it is obvious that there has been a lengthy period of strikes and civil unrest. We already have reason to be suspicious of this - is this genuine civil unrest or is it manufactured by the government or by The General?

We also meet a number of other characters. Tom Weston (John Collin) is a keen and ambitious member of the Guardians. While he’s happy to kick heads in the line of duty he’s actually a jovial sort of fellow and seems devoted to his wife Clare (Gwyneth Powell). Clare has been suffering from headaches and has been seeing a top government psychiatrist, Dr Benedict (David Burke). There’s some interesting sparring between these two - Dr Benedict thinks Clare may be spying on him, Clare thinks Dr Benedict may be spying on her, Dr Benedict speculates that he has been called in because someone is taking an interest in Tom Weston.

Tom Weston is in charge of recruiting and training and he finds himself forced to accept a very upper-class recruit named Peter Lee (Robin Ellis). Tom Weston thinks that Peter Lee may not be at all what he seems to be and we’re inclined to agree with him. Is Lee a communist subversive? An agent of The General? An agent placed in the Guardians by some other group?

So all in all the opening episode establishes a definite mood of paranoia and conspiracy. It’s a promising opening.

As the series progresses some weaknesses do start to appear. The great danger facing a program dealing with politics is that it will succumb to the temptations of preachiness and speechifying. At times The Guardians succumbs to those temptations in a truly disastrous manner. The worst example is probably when the prime minister is dining with his old friend Sir Francis Wainwright who is now the head of the EBC (obviously a thinly disguised version of the BBC). The speeches start immediately and they go and on and on. The prime minister puts the case for the government’s increasingly authoritarian rule while the EBC chief puts forward the liberal argument for no censorship. The problem is that it’s all done in such an unbelievably clumsy manner. It’s two characters sitting in a London club and talking and talking and talking.

Just as it seems that the series has self-destructed with excessive talkiness it suddenly comes to life again and becomes truly fascinating with some wonderfully devious power plays for the highest stakes of all.

One aspect of this series that does seem dated is that the imposition of a police state is seen as being a response to a crisis caused to a large extent by waves of strikes. Of course back in the early 70s strikes really were perceived as a major threat to the social order.

There is of course a resistance movement. The series focuses partly on this resistance movement and partly on the power struggles within the government. There’s also of course a focus on certain individuals. Some of the characters are, like the prime minister, obviously important. Others seem completely unimportant but as the various plot strands come together they play increasingly key rôles.

One strength of The Guardians is that it tries to avoid painting any of the characters as either entirely heroic or entirely villainous. They’re complex people who often do not entirely understand their own motivations. They are also not entirely in control of their own destinies (although some of them think that they are).

Cyril Luckham is a good choice for the rôle of the prime minister. He can be pompous and ineffectual and he can be devious and sly and Sir Timothy Hobson is all of those things. Derek Smith is delightfully slimy as the Cabinet Secretary Norman. John Collin is excellent as the rather ambiguous Tom Weston. David Burke is equally good as the very ambiguous Dr Benedict.

I was less impressed by a couple of the other cast members. Edward Petherbridge as the prime minister’s son Christopher was a bit on the irritating side. Gwyneth Powell’s performance as Clare Weston is disturbingly strange, but not in a good way. Or perhaps there’s just something about her that rubbed me up the wrong way.

There are guest appearances by some terrific character actors including two of my favourites, Graham Crowden and Peter Barkworth.

One problem this series faced was that in 1971 Dixon of Dock Green was still on television. The idea of British policemen behaving like uniformed thugs seemed too silly even to contemplate. The idea of a British government setting up a paramilitary political police force and suspending long-cherished legal rights seemed like a joke. In 1971 it sounded a bit far-fetched.

There’s some stuff about brainwashing, this being another major obsession of that time period. And there’s a considerable emphasis on the problems of crime, both ordinary crime and political crimes, and on effective and ineffective methods of dealing with these problems. This of course was a major obsession at that time - 1971 was also the year in which Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange was released.

The Guardians has some very real strengths. It doesn’t rely on characters who are simplistic heroes or villains.

The weaknesses are perhaps not entirely avoidable if you’re going to try to address serious political issues - there are a lot of speeches. This means that we do at least know exactly what the various characters stand for but it can make for some very stodgy television.

The Guardians is one of the more fascinating attempts at making a dystopian political thriller. It has its flaws and it can get very talky but it’s intelligent and thought-provoking and  exceptionally complex. It’s an exploration of the conflicts between freedom and stability, authority and chaos, obedience and responsibility, duty and loyalty, liberty and order. It does not try to persuade us that there are easy answers.

The Guardians has been released on DVD in the UK by Network. It is well worth a look.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Out of the Unknown, season 4 (1971)

Out of the Unknown was a science fiction anthology series which was produced by the BBC from 1965 to 1971. Four seasons were produced altogether. Out of the Unknown was reasonably successful with both critics and the public but this didn’t stop the BBC from junking most of the series in the early 70s. Only twenty episodes survive.

The original idea had been to do adaptations of stories by distinguished science fiction writers. By the fourth season that idea had largely been abandoned, and in fact the series seemed to be moving away from actual science fiction altogether and becoming more thriller-orientated. Irene Shubik, who had conceived the series back in 1965, had long since departed.

Five episodes from the fourth season still exist.

This was still the shot-on-videotape-in-the-studio era of British television, and although the BBC seems to have been prepared to spend some real money on the earlier seasons this fourth season is starting to get a very low-budget feel to it.

Whether To Lay a Ghost even qualifies as science fiction is very dubious. As the title suggests it’s a ghost story. This was 1971, so naturally it had to be a ghost story about sex.

Eric Carver (Iain Gregory) is a very wealthy and very trendy young photographer. He and his beautiful wife Diana (Lesley-Anne Down) have just moved into a rather nice old country house which they’re restoring. Eric and Diana are very much in love and have a perfect marriage, except that they don’t have sex. Diana was raped some years earlier and she doesn’t do sex.

It now appears that their house has acquired a ghost. The ghost is only visible in photographs. Eric is not happy about the ghost, and you can’t really blame him since it keeps trying to kill him. Diana on the other hand is rather excited about the ghost.

Eric decides to call in professional help. Dr Philimore (Peter Barkworth) is a scientific ghost-hunter and he’s also a psychiatrist. It doesn’t take him too long to realise what is going on, and it won’t take the viewer very long either.

Lesley-Anne Down’s performance is the highlight, absolutely dripping with twisted and unhealthy sexuality. There is no way To Lay a Ghost could get made today. The obsession with sex in so much British TV of that era can be very tiresome but at least they tried to be honest about it and weren’t afraid to follow a story through to its logical conclusions.

To Lay a Ghost isn’t great television but it’s not bad.

This Body Is Mine employs a very timeworn science fiction idea, switching minds and bodies, but it at least puts the idea to reasonably good use.

Mild-mannered research scientist Allen Meredith has invented a mind-swapping machine. He’s been responsible for other brilliant inventions but he never seems to make any real money from his ideas - it’s ruthless businessman Jack Gregory (Jack Hedley) who always seems to make the money. This time Meredith is determined to get the better of Gregory. Meredith and his wife Ann (Alethea Charlton) have cooked up a clever plan. Meredith will exchange bodies with Gregory, then while impersonating Gregory he’ll make out a very large cheque to himself.

It’s a good plan but it goes wrong because Meredith doesn’t understand the sort of man Jack Gregory is and makes some colossal blunders, while Ann starts to think that ruthless hyper-masculine businessmen are a whole lot sexier than mild-mannered research scientists.

John Carson and Jack Hedley both do extremely well in their tricky roles, essentially having to play each other as well as playing themselves.

This is another episode that could not get made today. Like To Lay a Ghost it touches on issues of sexual dominance and submissiveness, in ways that might well trigger apoplexy in modern viewers.

There’s a very cynical feel to this episode, verging on black comedy. This Body Is Mine works reasonably well.

Deathday is a pure psychological thriller, and an extremely bad one. Adam Crosse (Robert Lang) is an inoffensive and rather bumbling local journalist who discovers his wife is having an affair. She taunts him with it. He instantly changes into a cold calculating master criminal planning the perfect murder, then later he changes into a guilt-ridden basket case.

The idea is presumably to make some sort of comment on the blurring of the line between reality and fantasy. Unfortunately it’s done in a very obvious and crude way. The performances are clumsy. The whole thing is utterly unconvincing. It tries to be arty but ends up being muddled and pretentious.

It’s yet another episode that is focused on sex. There’s some gratuitous nudity to make us think it’s all very modern and daring.

Identity seems to be a bit of a theme running through the fourth season. In Welcome Home Dr Frank Bowers (Anthony Ainley) is a psychiatrist who has been recovering in a mental hospital after a car accident. His recovery is now complete and he’s looking forward to seeing his wife again, in the picturesque little country cottage she’s been preparing for his return. The reunion doesn’t go smoothly - his wife claims that she’s never set eyes on him before and there’s another man in the cottage who claims to be Dr Frank Bowers (played by Bernard Brown).

It’s bad enough that someone is trying to steal his identity (and his wife) but it seems that there’s some vast conspiracy. Everyone seems to be involved. Even the police. He suspects it has something to do with an experimental drug he has heard about, DK-5. It’s a kind of brainwashing drug. But what could the purpose of the conspiracy be? Could an intelligence agency be behind it? Or even a foreign power? Uncovering the conspiracy is obviously vital but Frank’s main concern is for his wife. It seems likely she has been forced into playing a role in this nefarious scheme and she could be in real danger.

So we have once again an episode dealing with the mutability and fragmentation of identity. Moris Farhi’s script does some clever things with these ideas. The atmosphere of paranoia is nicely done but most importantly we’re not sure exactly what is going on and we’re not sure how much of what we’re being told can be believed. It’s not just that people might be lying. They might not even know themselves whether they’re telling the truth or not. Welcome Home is clever and disturbing and entertaining.

The Man in My Head is yet another exploration of identity. A team of commandos is about to blow up a power station. They have no idea what country they’re in, or how they got there. They have no idea why they’re meant to blow up the power station, or whether this means they’re actually at war with the country concerned. Consciously the commandos know nothing of their mission. They’ve been programmed by subliminal briefing. They’re little more than automatons.

Things start to go wrong when one of the commandos, Fulman, accidentally breaks the capsule implanted into his teeth. The drug triggers a second set of programming, which is the cover story in case they are captured. Fulman is now operating according to instructions that are totally contrary to the instructions under which everyone else is operating. Other tensions start to build up. Every action has been carefully planned and programmed which causes stress if things don’t go according to plan. And several of the commandos have decided not to obey their programming - but of course they may have been programmed to refuse to follow their programming. They have no way of knowing how much free will they have, if any, and no way of being sure if what appears to be happening is real or simply something they’ve been programmed to believe they are experiencing.

The script, by John Wiles, is complex and twisted. The execution of the story is helped a great deal by the superb set designed by Jeremy Davies. It’s colourful and complicated and looks very industrial and futuristic and rather forbidding but in an interestingly arty and stylish way.

The five surviving episodes of this final season are a mixed bag. Deathday is an embarrassing misfire but the other four are all quite good, and all fairly interesting. What’s particularly impressive is the thematic consistency - questions of identity, illusion and reality figure in all of the stories. The Man in My Head is my personal favourite, being both provocative and remarkably impressive visually. The fourth season has a rather different feel compared to the earlier seasons but in its own way it’s just as interesting.

Out of the Unknown was throughout its run wildly uneven in quality. Some episodes are complete and utter rubbish. Others are simply superb (The Machine Stops from season 2 is outstanding). On the whole the BFI DVD boxed set is worth getting and it includes a host of extras (including audio commentaries for eleven episodes).

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Thriller - If It's a Man, Hang Up/The Double Kill (1975)

Brian Clemens had a major success with his anthology series Thriller, made by ITC and running from 1973 to 1976. The stories were psychological thrillers, very much in the style of the psychological thrillers made by Hammer Films from the early 60s to the early 70s. In fact the immediate inspiration for the series was probably a film Clemens had written in 1970, And Soon the Darkness.

Thriller went into production just before Euston Films revolutionised the look and style of British television with Special Branch and The Sweeney. Thriller belongs very much to the previous era of British television. Its in colour but has a shot-in-the-studio shot-on-videotape feel to it. The production values are not overly high. There is very little location shooting. That particular era of British TV relied very heavily on the quality of the writing, which fortunately tended to be rather high. Clemens certainly had an illustrious track record as both writer and producer thanks to The Avengers. Thriller, perhaps deliberately, has absolutely no resemblance to The Avengers in either content or style.

Clemens wrote most of the forty-three episodes himself.

If It's a Man, Hang Up kicks off the fifth season. It went to air in Britain in early 1975. In common with many of the other episodes it has an imported American star, and one who is very much of the second rank. Carol Lynley is very attractive and that’s about the best thing you can say about her as an actress. Fortunately in this episode she plays a model and we don’t exactly expect sparkling wit and intellectual sparkle from models.

Suzy Martin (Lynley) is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. When she starts getting heavy-breather telephone calls she probably should have taken the matter a bit more seriously. A young pretty woman who is a minor celebrity and lives alone should perhaps be a bit more aware of the importance of taking at least some very basic precautions to protect herself.

Suzy does the sorts of things you’d expect a model to do. She’s having an affair with married middle-aged photographer Greg Miles (Gerald Harper). She’s dumped the photographer who established her reputation, Terry Cleeves (Paul Angelis), because now she’s a big name and she doesn’t need him any more.

She does have the sense to call the police about the phone calls but all she gets out of that is a few visits from a couple of not very bright constables. Being a celebrity she might have been wise to make more of a fuss and demand to talk to an inspector at least.

As you might anticipate the situation starts to escalate, the heavy breather moves on to making vague threats. And then something happens that convinces Suzy that she is in real danger.

There are lots of men around who are anxious to play the white knight and rescue this damsel in distress. There’s Greg Miles, there’s Terry Cleeves, there’s Terry’s Sicilian friend Bruno (Tom Conti), there’s the caretaker who thinks Suzy is a kind of goddess and there are the two young police constables. The problem of course is that one of these would-be white knights is the psycho killer who is stalking her, and Suzy’s judgment when it comes to men is just a little questionable at the best of times. She seems to have a knack for making decisions that she hasn’t really thought through and this is going to place her in very great danger indeed.

Thriller is a series that can be just a little clunky at times, just a little stilted, probably mostly due to the very studio-bound production methods. The acting can also be rather variable.

What matters here though is that Clemens muddies the waters with considerable skill, misdirecting us and encouraging us to go after the red herrings that he has deployed. It’s not an incredibly complex plot but Clemens was a pro and he keeps us guessing. Every single character is a totally plausible suspect.

Carol Lynley might not be a great actress but she does succeed in doing the one thing that she has to do. She manages to make us care about Suzy. She has her flaws and she’s not all that bright but Suzy is basically a sympathetic character and she doesn’t deserve to be terrorised. Tom Conti gives a nicely relaxed performance while Gerald Harper and Paul Angelis manage to make their respective characters just creepy enough to make them plausible suspects.

If It's a Man, Hang Up is a generally very successful episode.

The Double Kill opens with an odd encounter between a home-owner and a burglar. It gives us a hint that some kind of game is being played, possibly a dangerous game, but at this stage we have no idea what the game is.

We’re introduced to married couple Hugh and Clarissa Briant (played by Gary Collins and Penelope Horner). Their relationship is tense to say the least. Clarissa is extremely wealthy. She collects things. She collects paintings, silverware, antiques, jade, pretty much anything that’s expensive. One assumes that her purchases include her husband. They live in a rather palatial home stuffed with treasures and protected by - well actually they’re not protected by anything at all. There is no security. And the fact that the house is filled with outrageously valuable trinkets is no secret. Hugh never stops talking about how worried he is by the lack of security. He talks about it everywhere.

There is another odd encounter with another burglar and we start to see the game that is being played. It’s a nasty clever little game but that’s only the beginning. Other people can play games as well. All sorts of unexpected people play games in this story. You can easily find that the game you’re playing is not the one you thought you were playing.

Gary Collins is another of those second-tier American stars who feature so heavily in Thriller but he’s a pretty good actor and does an effective job. James Villiers (as Hugh’s friend Paul) has long been one of my favourite British actors of this era, always at his best when he’s being a bit morally ambiguous. Peter Bowles is another favourite of mine. He plays Superintendent Lucas, who knows a thing or two about games. Stuart Wilson is nicely ambiguous and unpredictable as Max Burns. This really is a very fine cast.

OK, you can see one of the plot twists coming but in a way that makes it more fun - it adds a delicious touch of anticipation as you can see characters making wrong moves but there’s nothing they can do about it since they don’t know that the rules of the game have changed. And there are plenty of twists that you won’t see coming.

The Double Kill is a superb episode.

Season five certainly gets off to a terrific start with If It's a Man, Hang Up and The Double Kill. Great stuff. Highly recommended.

I've previously reviewed Night Is the Time for Killing and several other season four episodes of Thriller.

Saturday, 30 June 2018

Space 1999: Alien Seed (novel)

Space: 1999 spawned a very extensive series of spin-off novels which, remarkably, have continued to appear well into the 21st century. Most of the 1970s novels were novelisations, usually combining three or four episodes of the TV series into a single narrative. There were however several original novels published in the 70s, including E.C. Tubb’s Alien Seed which came out in 1976.

Given that the two seasons of Space: 1999 were rather different in format and tone (with Year Two being almost universally regarded as very much inferior to the first season) it’s important to note that this is a Year One story.

The author assumes, doubtless correctly, that if you’re reading a Space: 1999 novel then it’s virtually a certainty that you’re familiar with the TV series and that you know the basic setup - a gigantic nuclear explosion has knocked the Moon out of Earth’s orbit and turned it into a huge spaceship hurtling uncontrolled through the galaxy. The crew of Moonbase Alpha, several hundred people, survived the blast and now they’re hoping to find a planet they can colonise.

It starts as a fairly typical Space: 1999 story. An unidentified object is heading towards the Moon. It’s on a collision course and the impact could destroy Moonbase Alpha. Commander John Koenig has to take prompt action to save Moonbase Alpha, and his scientific adviser Victor Bergman tries to persuade him to find a way to save the base without destroying the object. The object is rather curious. There are no signs of life and it seems to be basically just a very large rock but it looks odd enough to raise doubts as to whether it is a natural formation, and then there are the membranous wings.

Perhaps it would have been better to have destroyed the object. As the title of the book suggests the object is a seed pod but it contains more than seeds. What it contains is very frightening indeed.

This is a story of an encounter with something very alien indeed but there’s more to it than that. There’s also the telepathy angle. At the time that the object was first sighted Dr Helena Russell just happened to be carrying out an experiment on extra-sensory perception on a very promising young female subject. This turns out to have very significant ramifications.

The ESP angle might raise eyebrows but back in 1976 the idea of ESP as a reality did not seem as crazy as it doers today and fairly respectable scientists were still inclined to keep an open mind on the subject. ESP apparently is a subject in which the author of this novel has a certain interest and he manages to introduce it into his story without too much silliness.

In fact there’s really not a great deal of silliness at all in this novel. I’m not sure that I’d go so far as to describe it as hard science fiction but it’s certainly closer to hard SF than you expect from a TV tie-in novel. There’s at least some effort to keep things vaguely convincing. Of course it’s worth remarking that the reputation of the Space: 1999 TV series for silliness is largely due to the lamentable second season while the first season was reasonably serious, quite ambitious and often surprisingly intelligent.

The characters generally behave in ways that are consistent with the characterisations in the TV series. This is crucially important in a TV tie-in novel - if you fail to achieve this consistency then you end up with just a generic science fiction novel.

The setting is used skilfully, with constant reminders that the crew of Moonbase Alpha have no-one but themselves to rely upon and have to deal constantly with the psychological dangers of loneliness and despair. John Koenig is a man who can never forget even for a moment that he bears a heavy burden of responsibility - one mistake could mean the end of the line for Moonbase Alpha and everyone in it.

The relationship between Koenig and Victor Bergman is handled well also. Bergman is brilliant but he is sometimes blinded by his scientific ardour. Koenig clearly is the man who has what it takes to be a leader, even when that means taking difficult or unpopular decisions. He feels the burden of leadership but he accepts it. That burden is something that the other characters don’t always understand and than sometimes leads to tensions.

Tubb is not a dazzling literary stylist but he’s a competent writer and he knows how to structure a story and how to keep the pacing nicely taut.

Alien Seed is one of the more successful TV tie-in novels that I’ve read. It has a slightly more serious tone than the TV series but it still feels like a Space: 1999 story. If you’re a fan of the series you’ll enjoy this book. Even if you’re not a particular fan of Space: 1999 this is still a decent science fiction novel. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Land of the Giants, season 1 (1968)

Land of the Giants was the fourth of Irwin Allen’s 1960s science fiction TV series. It aired on the US ABC network between 1968 and 1970.

The suborbital spaceliner Spindrift on a routine flight from Los Angeles to London encounters a strange cloud and loses control. The crew eventually regains control and lands successfully but pretty soon it becomes obvious they wherever they have landed it certainly isn’t London. Somehow they have ended up on a planet inhabited by what appear to be normal humans except they they’re enormous. And everything else is enormous, and potentially dangerous simply because of the scale.

There are only four passengers on board the Spindrift. Why anyone would build a spaceliner for scheduled services that can only carry four passengers is a valid question but from Irwin Allen’s point of view it made sense. With the pilot and co-pilot and one stewardess that made for a regular cast of seven which was ideal for this sort of series.

The basic setup is certainly reminiscent of Allen’s earlier Lost in Space series. It has a small group of people stranded on an alien hostile planet. It even has a character roughly equivalent to Lost in Space’s Dr Smith in the person of Commander Fitzhugh (Kurt Kasznar), who is cowardly and conniving but manages to strike up a kind of friendship with the young Barry Lockridge who is just a little older than Will Robinson. Fitzhugh though is less of a purely comic figure than Dr Smith and he has considerably more complexity.

Although Land of the Giants obviously had the potential to be even sillier and more high camp than Lost in Space the admittedly slightly far-fetched subject matter is approached reasonably seriously (and if you rewatch the the first few episodes of Lost in Space you can see that Irwin Allen originally intended it to be at least a semi-serious sci-fi series). And while the setup is remarkably similar to that of Lost in Space it’s still a very good setup. The really major difference between the two series is the genuine ever-present sense of danger and struggle in Land of the Giants. When you’re effectively only six inches tall then absolutely everything is dangerous and everything is a challenge.

The really interesting, and courageous, decision by Irwin Allen was to dispense with monsters. The giants are terrifying but they are not monsters. The giants’ world seems to be identical in almost every way with 1960s America. The giants are just regular folks. They are to be feared mostly because the giants’ government wants to capture every “little person” on the planet (and there are quite a few of them from previous space missions that had suffered the fate of the Spindrift). What the government intends to do with them is an unanswered question but it’s a fair assumption that the best they can hope for is to be kept in captivity and used pretty much as lab animals. A reward has been offered to anyone who finds little people and hands them over to the government, and human nature being what it is there are plenty of people willing to take the money. So the giants are a very real threat, but they’re not evil and they’re not monstrous.

As the first season progresses Inspector Kobick of the Special Investigation Department emerges as the principal villain but even he is not a monster - he’s doing his job and while he might be over-zealous and ruthless he’s not actually evil.

This posed a challenge to the writers who had to maintain a constant feeling of danger without being able to resort to evil monsters. On the whole I think they managed quite well. The humanness of the giants also adds a subtle touch of paranoia - some giants really are friendly and trustworthy but you can never be sure.

Land of the Giants was an incredibly expensive series. On the whole the money was well spent. The special effects mostly work quite well. The massively oversized props (matchsticks several feet long, a cotton reel the size of a 44-gallon drum, etc) look good. The Spindrift itself manages to look kind of bizarre, kind of goofy but kind of cool all at the same time. Some of the techniques used are pretty simple - using lots of low-angle shots to make the giants look huge and menacing and lots of high-angle shot to make the castaways look more vulnerable. Simple, but effective.

The US broadcast order bore no relationship whatever to the production order. I think it’s highly desirable to watch the series in production order. While there are no actual multi-episode story arcs the growing menace of the Special Investigation Department emerges more effectively if you watch it that way.

The way the giants are handled in the early episodes is very interesting. They’re menacing but in a subtle and indirect way. They look like very ordinary humans but they seem to be oddly lacking in emotion. At this stage we don’t know if they really are emotionless or whether they simply don’t see the tiny humans as actual people - whether they regard these miniature people as alien animals of some kind, worth studying but not worth treating with respect. But it’s all kept very ambiguous which is very intriguing.

The Episode Guide
The opening episode, The Crash, sets things up efficiently enough. The Spindrift is stuck on a planet of giants and her power cells are exhausted. The nature of the giants is kept cleverly ambiguous. We have no idea at this stage if they’re actively hostile or not. There are a couple of terrifying encounters with domestic animals - on a planet of giants dogs and cats are very scary creatures indeed.

It’s obvious that the Spindrift’s crew members -  Captain Steve Burton (Gary Conway), his co-pilot Dan Erickson (Don Marshall) and stewardess Betty Hamilton (Heather Young) - are resourceful and are determined to do what’s necessary to survive. It’s also obvious that some of the passengers are likely to cause problems.

The DVD release also includes the original unaired pilot version of The Crash. A number of changes were made in the broadcast version which went to air in September 1968. A couple of very poorly executed action scenes were added, and a lot of the scenes filling in the backgrounds of the characters were eliminated. That’s unfortunate because those scenes make spoilt rich girl Valerie (Deanna Lund) and arrogant engineer/tycoon Mark Wilson (Don Matheson) much more understandable. On the whole I think the unaired version is the better version but by 1968 Irwin Allen had become painfully aware that what the networks wanted were monsters so in the broadcast version he gave them monsters.

The second episode to be filmed was The Weird World, in which the castaways discover that they are not the first humans to find themselves on this strange world. Even more importantly, there may be a fully functional spaceship they can use to effect their escape from the planet.

In The Trap Betty and Valerie are caught by giants and an ambitious and dangerous  rescue mission has to be mounted to save them. There are lots of tensions among the party over this.

The Bounty Hunter presents new dangers for our space travellers - the giants are now actively searching for them and rewards have been offered to anyone who finds them or their spaceship. We also get a bit more insight into what the giants are really like.

In The Golden Cage another human is discovered on the planet. A beautiful girl, in a specimen bottle left out in the woods. To Steve this is an obvious trap. Mark however doesn’t see it this way - he is determined to rescue the girl. The girl, Marna, had been a passenger on a spacecraft that disappeared fifteen years earlier. She seems like a nice girl but she’s convinced that the giants are her friends and mean no harm. To Steve this is more evidence that Marna is part of an elaborate trap laid by the giants. This is an excellent episode.

The Lost Ones are a bunch of juvenile delinquents who are also marooned on the planet of the giants. They’re almost as much of a menace as the giants. This is one of those 60s TV episodes that tries to be hip and happening and in touch with youth culture. Such attempts never end well and this is an irritating episode.

The worst disaster that could befall our space castaways strikes them in Manhunt. A giant finds the Spindrift. The giant in question is an escapee from prison and he may be hoping to using the Spindrift as a bargaining counter to get his sentence reduced. The escapee then manages to get himself into real trouble and is facing certain death until Captain Burton decides the castaways have to save him. The question is, will the giant show gratitude or will he betray them?

Framed is a very convoluted and rather far-fetched tale but it is ingenious and it’s another episode in which the interactions with the giants are not necessarily always hostile. The giants are just like anyone else. Some are evil, some are good, most are in-between. And Captain Burton again decides to help out a giant who’s in trouble - he’s been framed for a murder but the castaways know he’s innocent because they witnessed the murder. The way in which they try to prove the man’s innocence is quite clever.

The Creed forces the castaways to make a very hard choice. Young Barry is desperately ill and needs medical help. But can they afford to trust a giant to provide that help?

The Flight Plan is an interesting idea but it does include a plot device that really stretches credibility. OK, I know the whole series stretches credibility but this idea just stretches it too far for my liking and undermines the necessary suspension of disbelief. The castaways encounter another castaway but there is something about this guy that makes Steve Burton just a little suspicious. The guy does however claim to be able to find a supply of the special fuel that the Spindrift requires so there’s a definite incentive to trust him.

Underground seems to confirm something that has been vaguely hinted at in other episodes - that the land of the giants has a government with certain totalitarian tendencies.

Double-Cross sees the castaways involved in a jewellery heist planned by a couple of ruthless but not overly bright giant crooks. It’s not a bad story but it’s the visuals that make this a really fine episode. The special effects are extremely good, the low-angle shots emphasising the size of the giants are particularly effective and the boy-in-the-lock sequences are very clever.

In On a Clear Night You Can See Earth the castaways try to steal a lens (which they need to recharge the solar batteries) from a giant but the giant turns out to be a mad scientist. In fact he’s totally insane and severely paranoid but he has come up with an invention that poses a serious threat to the castaways. Somehow that threat has to be neutralised, by whatever means may be necessary. Not a bad episode but the seeing Earth in the binoculars thing is a pretty silly.

Ghost Town is clever, scary and creepy. Crossing a force field brings our travellers into what appears to be a perfectly ordinary, normal-sized small town. It seems like they have somehow made it back to Earth. In fact they’re in a model village full of toy houses and toy cars, a village constructed by a giant, albeit a giant who is a kindly eccentric old man. He clearly intends to keep these little people as pets. That’s a bit disturbing but there is worse news to come out. The old man’s grand-daughter looks like a sweet little girl but she’s a psychopathic demon child from Hell and her intention is to torture the castaways to death.

The model village works really well. It looks normal but somehow not quite right. It’s just a bit too perfect. And the fact that the village looks so cute and innocuous makes the whole story quite unsettling. A very good episode.

Brainwash further develops the conspiracy theory thing involving the giants and their intentions towards the little people. Unfortunately the brainwashing technique that drives the plot is very silly - it’s like magic shaving foam! An episode with good bits and bad bits. The device of having a member of the Spindrift’s crew captured by the giants and needing to be rescued is starting to get a bit old.

Terror-Go-Round is yet another episode in which the castaways get captured by giants. At least this time they get captured by a circus and circuses do have the potential for fun. There’s also the added danger of being eaten by a giant bear. I must admit that this time the method of escape is pretty ingenious.

Sabotage pits the castaways against their most dangerous and ruthless enemy yet, the corrupt and fanatical security chief Bolgar (played by Robert Colbert who of course starred in Irwin Allen’s The Time Tunnel). If Bolgar’s scheme works there will be nation-wide panic and all the little people will be hunted down and killed. But Steve thinks he can come up with a plan to thwart Bolgar. It’s a bit contrived but it works and this episode does have a genuine sense of menace.

In Genius at Work a 12-year-old giant boy scientific genius has invented a formula for making small animals very large, which of course means that it can turn little people into giants. My own view is that in a science fiction series you can get away with one outrageous assumption, such as astronauts marooned on a planet of giants. But when you start adding further outrageous assumptions, such as a special formula that can turn a little person into a giant, you’re basically resorting to magic. It’s lazy writing, and it also destroys the suspension of disbelief. It’s basically cheating.

In Deadly Lodestone the implacable and malevolent Inspector Kobick of the security police has come up with what he believes is a fool-proof gadget that will allow him to track down and capture the Earth people. The totalitarian nature of the giants’ society is becoming ever more obvious, although the surprising thing is that that society is presented as an odd mixture of Cold War stereotypes about eastern bloc countries and all-American elements.

Night of Thrombeldinbar represents a definite turn towards whimsy. Mr Fitzhugh is mistaken by a couple of giant orphan boys for Thrombeldinbar, who is a magical folkloric figure who can grant wishes. Fitzhugh has his faults but he likes kids and feels sorry for the boys and sees a chance to cheer them up. Unfortunately he doesn’t know about the fate that awaits Thrombeldinbar according to time-honoured custom. While there’s some definite sentimentality neither this nor the the whimsy is pushed too far and this episode is at least an interesting change of pace.

In Seven Little Indians the castaways find themselves on the run in the zoo as Inspector Kobick comes up with another plan to capture them.

Target: Earth seems to promise a chance to return to Earth, but it will involve putting a great deal of trust in a giant scientist. The scientist has designed a guidance system to take a rocket to Earth but he needs help to make it work and only the castaways can provide that help.

Rescue is interesting since for once the castaways are being a bit pro-active, putting themselves forward in an attempt to rescue two trapped giant children.

Return of Inidu is a change of pace with an illusionist on the run and a haunted house. It’s not a bad idea and it’s amusing and different but the illusions are a bit unconvincing and it therefore stretches credibility fairly thin.

In Shell Game the castaways have to convince a giant woman that they can make her deaf son hear in exchange for their freedom. This one perhaps veers a bit too much into heart-warming territory.

The Chase provides a pretty decent season finale with some suspense and with Captain Burton having to make a tough decision - can he trust Inspector Kobick enough to make a deal with him? And maybe Kobick is not the only giant willing to make deals.

Series Overview
Land of the Giants suffers from some of the same self-inflicted weaknesses as Lost in Space. The fact that the adventurers’ spaceship is disabled means they’re stuck in the same place episode after episode. That’s good news for the producers since it keeps production costs down but it does get rather tedious. It also tends to impose certain limits on the stories, which almost invariably involve one or more of the party getting captured by giants and needing to be rescued by the others.

Land of the Giants is also limited by the decision to make the giants the only alien species (with absolutely no monsters), and to make them completely human-like and their planet completely Earth-like. Overall that was a good decision but it means the writers needed to show some imagination and cleverness, and unfortunately in practice there isn’t always quite enough of that imagination and cleverness.

The series’ big strength is that the group dynamic is quite interesting. As the commander of the Spindrift Captain Burton more or less inevitably assumes the leadership of the group. And it’s just as well that he does. The other crew members and passengers are well-meaning but they’re just not the stuff that heroes are made of, and not only do they need leadership, they need very strong leadership. They are inclined to be impulsive and impatient and reckless and short-sighted. The biggest problem is Mark Wilson. He’s a brilliant engineer and he’s brave and resourceful, but he’s also arrogant, pig-headed and impetuous and his judgment is simply atrocious. He always thinks he’s right, and he’s almost always wrong. Steve Burton is basically the only grown-up in the group and leading the group is like leading a group of small children who are enthusiastic but disobedient. Gary Conway handles this very well, making the character a generally easy-going guy but you can see the steel underneath. He really does have what it takes to be a leader and he’s quite prepared to make unpopular decisions and stick with them. Steve Burton is a likeable guy but he’s the boss.

It also has to be said that a certain amount of genuine thought has been put into the disadvantages, and the advantages, of being very very small in a world of giants. And visually the series is generally very well executed.

Despite the very similar format Land of the Giants is definitely much less campy than Lost in Space. Apart from a few blemishes it’s surprisingly successful in avoiding outright silliness. It was a bold move to approach this kind of material in a straightforward non-campy way but it works.

The DVDs
The first season looks extremely good on DVD. There’s not much in the way of extras but there is a very good interview with star Gary Conway. Conway comes across as an actor who gives his job a certain amount of thought and he’s still very enthusiastic about this series. He makes one extremely interesting point. At the time they were making the series the actors wanted it to be more character-driven which is something Irwin Allen strongly resisted. Conway now believes that Allen was right (and I agree with him). Getting sidetracked by the characters’ emotional dramas would actually have weakened the series, just as it has weakened so many series over the past thirty years or so. It’s unusual to come across an actor who can see this so clearly.

Summing Up
Land of the Giants is much better than it has any right to be. It’s far-fetched but it’s skilfully executed, the effects are mostly exceptionally well done (certainly by the standards of 60s network television) and it’s entertaining. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. - The Birds of a Feather Affair (novel)

The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. only lasted for one season (from late 1966 to early 1967) but it did spawn a series of tie-in novels. There were five original novels, although oddly enough three of them were published in the UK only.

The Birds of a Feather Affair by Michael Avallone was published in both Britain and the United States in 1966. What’s immediately obvious is that the tone is rather more serious compared to the TV series. The TV series is wildly uneven in both quality and tone but generally speaking it adopts a very light-hearted spy spoof approach, and in fact at times  it degenerates into out-and-out farce.

The Birds of a Feather Affair is much closer in feel to the first season of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. which combined solid exciting spy thriller plots with a mildly tongue-in-cheek approach.

The novel does have its outlandish elements but it also has some surprisingly dark moments.

The story begins with U.N.C.L.E. agent April Dancer arriving at fellow-agent Mark Slate’s apartment to find that he’s disappeared. What she does find there is a glamorous redhead and a deadly snake. She suspects that Mark has been kidnapped by THRUSH. And then a multi-national delegation arrives and kidnaps her.

Mr Waverley has no doubts as to what is going on. U.N.C.L.E. has captured one of THRUSH’s most important agents, a man named Zorki, and THRUSH are obviously hoping to trade Mark and April for Zorki. Zorki however holds the key to a discovery so astounding and so dangerous that Mr Waverley is not willing to give him up under any circumstances. He does however have a plan to hoodwink THRUSH over the affair.

In this adventure April Dancer and Mark Slate are up against THRUSH agents who are outstanding not just for their cunning but for their deviousness and cruelty. There’s the sadistic Arnolda Van Atta and the creepy and mysterious Mr Riddle, not to mention Fried Rice and Pig Alley. Even worse, there may be treachery within U.N.C.L.E. headquarters.

The action is fairly relentless. Avallone’s style is not always polished but his pacing can’t be faulted. The action climax is effective enough.

Apart from being much darker in tone than the TV series the violence is also slightly more graphic and there are some faint hints of sexual perversity that you weren’t going to see on prime-time TV in 1966.

A successful TV tie-in novel has to get the characters right. They have to be recognisably the characters from the TV series. The difficulty with this book is that the darker tone means that some of the good-natured banter between the two lead characters is missing. April is reasonably convincing. Mark Slate perhaps does not quite have the boyish charm that he should have and he's just a tiny bit too overtly macho but overall the novel succeeds at least reasonably well on this level.

A successful TV tie-in novel normally needs to capture the tone of the TV series as well but in this case the author has obviously deliberately chosen to aim for a quite different feel. Given that the TV series suffers from taking the comic approach way too far I can’t say that I blame Avallone for his decision. He has tried to write a genuine spy thriller. It’s not that the book takes itself overly seriously, but it takes itself seriously enough to work as a piece of spy fiction. If only that more slightly more serious approach had been taken with the TV series it might have been far more successful.

The Birds of a Feather Affair isn’t great spy fiction but it’s fast-moving and exciting and it’s entertaining in a lightweight sort of way. You’re probably not going to read this novel unless you’re a fan of the TV show, but if you are a fan of the series I think it’s worth picking up. It's not quite as successful as the Man from U.N.C.L.E. novel The Dagger Affair but it can still be recommended.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. - The Dagger Affair (novel)

TV tie-in novels have been around for a very long time and while they have never been a consuming interest for me over the years I have read a number. I’ve never been very interested in the “novelisations” based directly on episodes of the TV series. To me that has always seemed to be a fairly pointless concept. Original novels based on TV series always seemed to be a more interesting idea.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. may well have been the first TV series to spawn a really spectacularly successful and prolific cycle of TV tie-in novels. Twenty-four original novels were published between 1965 and 1968 and they sold in enormous quantities.

The Dagger Affair was the fourth to appear, in 1965. The author, David McDaniel, went on to write half a dozen Man from U.N.C.L.E. novels including some of the biggest sellers in the series. He also wrote a tie-in novel based on The Prisoner. McDaniel’s literary career was cut short by his early death in 1977 at the age of 38.

The Dagger Affair opens with a break-in at Illya Kuryakin’s apartment and with Napoleon Solo having a chance encounter with a girl in a fast car. Whilst racing the girl his own car develops serious engine trouble which oddly enough seems to fix itself in a short time.  Trivial enough events but they occur at the exact moment that Mr Waverley is fretting about the fact that T.H.R.U.S.H. is not up to anything. That worries him because it isn’t natural. T.H.R.U.S.H. is always up to something. If they’re not then they must be planning something big.

Solo and Kuryakin are off to Los Angeles to follow up a very slender lead. They discover that T.H.R.U.S.H. is worried as well. They’re worried about D.A.G.G.E.R. and mostly they’re worried because they don’t know D.A.G.G.E.R. is but they’re sure it’s important.

Mr Solo’s engine trouble was in fact an important clue. A reclusive and eccentric young scientist has built a device called an Energy Damper that has strange and severe effects on electrical devices, and possibly on other things as well. Like people. Eccentric is perhaps the wrong word to describe this young man. Severely paranoid and totally insane might be more accurate.

The Energy Damper has the potential to destroy civilisation. Even T.H.R.U.S.H. are horrified. They’re so horrified they’re offering to work together with U.N.C.L.E. to save civilisation. Even this may not guarantee success - D.A.G.G.E.R. is an organisation run by full-blown fanatics with a super-weapon.

A successful TV tie-in novel needs to capture the flavour of the original TV series. If a Man from U.N.C.L.E. novel ends up being just a generic spy story with characters who happen to be named Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin then (in my view) it’s pretty pointless. The Dagger Affair does a reasonably good job of capturing the necessary flavour. It’s important to note that in this case it’s the flavour of the first season of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., when the tongue-in-cheek elements were definitely present but were kept under control and the plots were at least semi-serious spy stories. They could be somewhat far-fetched but the series had not yet descended into self-parody.

That’s the feel that McDaniel achieves. The central plot device, the Energy Damper, is fanciful but can at least be made to sound vaguely plausible with enough technobabble to back it up. There’s plenty of action and it’s treated more or less the way the action is treated in the TV series, with lots of gunplay but no graphic violence (although there is some gruesome threatened violence during an extended and rather baroque interrogation sequence). Mr Solo takes a keen interest in the female of the species but there’s no actual sex. The story is handled with a moderate attempt at realism but Solo and Kuryakin get to trade wise-cracks and their characterisations are pretty consistent with their TV counterparts.

While there are moments that are gently humorous McDaniel is definitely not aiming for comedy and his approach is fairly consistent with that of the first season of the TV show.

McDaniel takes the opportunity of giving us a fascinating glimpse into the history of T.H.R.U.S.H. going back to the 19th century. Of course the novels are presumably not regarded as canon but it’s still an amusing idea that one of the founding fathers of this infamous criminal organisation was none other than Professor Moriarty! It’s a weird but fun touch.

The whole point of a TV tie-in novel is that the target audience is fans who have watched every episode and still want more and The Dagger Affair seems just like the thing to satisfy that craving. It was a huge seller so obviously in this case the strategy worked. The Dagger Affair might not be absolutely top-flight spy fiction but it’s fast-moving and it’s enjoyable in a lightweight way and it does feel like a Man from U.N.C.L.E. adventure.

I was pleasantly surprised by The Dagger Affair, and I’m encouraged enough to be seriously considering sample a few more TV tie-in novels based on 60s and 60s cult TV series.